Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 13 July 2012
Starring: Alastair Gillies (Nat Mender), Claire Dean (Deanie Webb), Howard Whittock (Coordinator Ugo Priest), Louise Hamer (Misch), Benjamin Patterson (Lasar Opie), Will Hutchby (Kin Hodder), Michelle Ashton (Keten Webb), Phil Dennison (Grels, Medic), Leni Murphy (Betty/Executive/Nurse/Melamine). Writer: Ross Kelly, from the teleplay by Nigel Kneale. Directors: Ross Kelly and Daniel Thackeray. Producer: Gareth Kavanagh.
The Year of the Sex Olympics is the fourth production by Scytheplays, a Manchester-based theatrical group specializing in science fiction: previous productions have included Kevin Cuffe’s black comedy The Say Can Blues, an adaptation of Alan Moore‘s The Ballad of Halo Jones, and Together in Electric Dreams, an original comedy drama about a the struggle between Sir Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar for control of the British personal computing market (far more fun than it sounds!). It is based on Nigel Kneale‘s play of the same name, which was first broadcast in 1968 as part of BBC2‘s drama anthology series Theatre 625.
Watch, not do
Set in a hedonistic future owing much to the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World (1932), the play presents us with a society stratified between the brightener-popping ruling class ‘High Drives’ of Output Area 27 and a mass of ‘Low Drives’ kept passive on a diet of broadcast pornography. Kneale’s script calls it a ‘McLuhanised world’ (McLuhan‘s The Medium is the Massage, an immediate bestseller, was published a year earlier) in which television is used to ”massage” the sensorium, the seat of sensation, into passivity.
According to Kneale, his inspiration for the play came from two theatrical productions rather than television: the hippie musical Hair, which featured full frontal nudity, and Kenneth Tynan‘s bawdy theatrical review Oh! Calcutta!, to which Tynan had invited Kneale. He tied these public displays of permissiveness to popular ’60s concerns with overpopulation and civil unrest:
”The Year of the Sex Olympics was a double comment. First of all it was a comment on television and the idea of a passive audience. At that time, the population was a very hot topic and it was also the time when Hair was on and people were saying ”lets put porn on stage”. So I put these ideas together and took them to their logical conclusion, using porn as a socially beneficial element that turns people into the ultimate passive audience by hooking them on a substitute for sex rather than the real thing and so keeping the population down.”
–— Nigel Kneale, Interview with Julian Petley & Kim Newman
Nat Mender (Alastair Gillies, a great improvement on Tony Vogel in the TV version) is a television producer on the Sportsex channel, currently broadcasting The Sex Olympics. Nat is, in the words of Kneale’s script, ‘a decahedral peg in a nonahedral hole’; his fellow programmer, the ambitious Lasar Opie (Benjamin Patterson), fits in perfectly. The third member of their team is the shallow presenter Misch (Louise Hamer) with whom Nat is having a loveless sexual relationship. Misch speaks of the viewing audience with contempt but Hamer plays Misch’s insecurity well: her hatred springs from the knowledge that her fame and beauty are transitory.
Nat also has a daughter, Ketten (Michelle Ashton) with Deanie Webb (Claire Dean), both of whom who he clearly cares for, though he is unable to express this love in terms that sound anything other than selfish (Gillies struggles to articulate his feelings despite his impoverished language are among this production’s highlights). Deanie shows more compassion for her daughter – though she describes herself as ‘the mother’ not ‘her mother’. When Nat and Deanie visit their daughter at the Child Environment Centre where children are raised without their parents and it appears she has been diagnosed as Low-Drive Nat is angry:
NAT: It all goes on my record! And your record too! What about that!
For an instant Deanie hardly grasps his meaning. Then she is on her feet and at his shoulder, whispering fiercely:
DEANIE: Stop it! Think about her!
Coordinator Ugo Priest (Howard Whittock, stepping ably into the shoes of the great Leonard Rossiter) is old enough to remember the old times – or at least remember people who remember the old times – before Apathy Control. He retains an articulacy rare in this world but is a passionate advocate of apathy, expressed with the zealotry of the convert:
PRIEST: Yes. I am an old days man. The big break-through when they found the sheer power of watching. It took ’em a long time. Old days, they always said there were things you couldn’t show, things you mustn’t say. You ever hear the word ”pornography”? (Nat shakes his head). ”Censor”? (Nat shakes his head again) Ah. Meant a man that… Well, he’d have put a stop to all this. all of Sportsex, Artsex – the lot.
NAT (baffled): Why?
He takes another brightener. Nat wonders obscurely if he is being got at.
NAT: Like… Like I stopped that kinky team in there?
PRIEST (shaking his head): A censor stopped things being taken too far. We stop ’em from not going far enough. (He sucks at the brightener) But then this breakthrough. They found that if they screened everything… and screened it real kingstyle… then basically the audience would make do with that. In place of the real thing. Take all the experience at second hand and just sit watching, calmly and quietly.
NAT: Watch, not do.
PRIEST: Watch, not do – that’s when it started. Of course they wondered if it would work. well it’s what we’ve got out there now. And we know it does. the vicarious society..
Nat, who has been sucking brighteners fast, stares.
NAT: Vic -victorious?
PRIEST: Vicarious. Means substitute. This-for-that.
NAT: Oh, this-for-that.
PRIEST: Sorry, Nat. Dropping into old-days words. With thinking about those times. (Kindly) There was such a word, ”victorious”. To do with war..
NAT (more confidently): War was… a kind of tension.
PRIEST: Right. And riots, and crises. Too many people in the world. I remember the old slogan: ”Fight fire with fire, sex with sex!” They dosed it – (he waves his hand round them) – with this. Doused everything in the end. No more tensions, nothing. Just cool.
The Live Life Show
Priest recognises that the audience is growing bored with sex and tries to introduce programming that will tap another bodily response – laughter. But his crass attempts at introducing comedy programming – custard pie fights and other slapstick – fail to raise a smile despite his insistence that this is what the audience wants like a demented cross between Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, Joseph Goebbels, and TISWAS‘ Chris Tarrant.
When aspiring artist Kin Hodder (Will Hutchby) accidentally dies on air during a protest provoking howls of laughter from the audience, Lasar Opie conceives of The Live Life Show, a live Reality TV show featuring a family on a remote Scottish island. Nat and Deanie volunteer, and take their daughter with them, perhaps hoping to create their own Walden, well away from the stresses and obligations of Output. (Since Co-ordinator Priest seams such an apt name for a preacher for the faith apathy it perhaps isn’t stretching it too far to read Nat as Natural and Mender as Healer.) For the first few minutes of this second half of the play we experience some sense of hope even if the conditions Nat and his family are to live under are harsh: they are a family at last – and that’s where stories end happily isn’t it?
Thereafter, the play becomes increasingly dark as the upwardly mobile Opie begins to manipulate their lives further for the entertainment of the audience. The family are not alone on the island: there’s the mysterious Grels (Phil Dennison at his creepiest) and his sullen partner Betty (Leni Murphy, in one of four roles in this production). Even Priest is shocked as events unfold.
There is some effective use vignetting to switch between the island and the Output crew in the second half of the play. The Salmon Room is a small intimate venue and the production makes as much use of the space as possible. The sets consist of little more than a console at which the Output crew direct their programmes and monitor audience response and there are few props: this is a production that rests on the actor’s commitment to the script and the audience’s imagination. The audience is much more implicated in the drama than the TV version, as sitting at home it is much easier to pretend the diegetic audience represent someone else: here we are complicit in the actions onstage. We don’t have recourse to feeling smugly superior to an imagined audience.
Language reduction is a major theme of the play; the reduced language, Ad Speak, is a notable constructed language, owing something to the Newspeak of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – the difference being that while Newspeak was deliberately designed by a ruling oligarchy to prevent Party members from thinking unauthorised thoughts – committing ‘thoughtcrime‘ – the language of Sex Olympics has reduced itself naturally as words and concepts have become obsolete. Here, Nat struggles to articulate his thoughts about Will Hodder’s paintings:
NAT: Still not feel I got… the right words for it. They got to be somewhere. Where they go, Co-ordinator? Why they go, all those words?
PRIEST: People didn’t need ’em. They got out of having the thoughts so the words went too.
NAT: Thoughts… (Slowly, making a discovery) Those pictures were thoughts!
NAT: That what they felt like. Old, old thoughts you had… Real jumbo thoughts you forgot you ever had ’em… until you saw!
PRIEST: Bad thoughts.
NAT: Why bad?
PRIEST: If they upset people.
NAT: Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now in my head. But I got no words for ’em.
PRIEST: They hurt?
NAT: Just the way they came out. You know, I can feel ’em now… in my head. I can think ’em. But I got no words for ’em.
There are no Thought Police in Kneale’s world as thoughts police themselves: the most chilling fact of Kneale’s dystopia is that it is one the populace have entered willingly. Yet Kneale is no linguistic determinist: Nat can feel his thoughts even if he cannot articulate them. He may be trapped in a prison-house of language but can see through the bars.
Adjectives and verbs are interchangeable in Ad-Speak (MISCH: They sick me too). The language is also slightly Russified like the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange (1962): Ad Speak largely omits definite and indefinite articles (”the”, ”a”, ”an”), a characteristic of Russian Grammar. There are fewer tenses, there are few cupulas to link the subject of a sentence with predicates, and word order is more flexible than English. Certain slang terms also suggest a Slavic root (”bubbies’ from ”babushka”, for instance) and character names like Misch (derived from the man’s name Mikhail, but which has, like Nikita, been adopted as a woman’s name in the West) reinforce this impression. Kneale wasn’t suggesting that the UK had been invaded by the Soviet Union though, any more than Burgess was; more that nation states have lost all definition in a media saturated world. To use another ”McLuhanism” we are all part of the same ”Global Village”. (In the TV version the cast adopt a distinctly transatlantic accent). The cumulative effect is that Ad Speak sounds like it has been imperfectly translated from a language which has no native speakers. The cast, veterans of The Ballad of Halo Jones, are experienced enough with futuristic sociolects to make it sound natural.
Nigel Kneale… Prophet?
Most of the reviews have been along the lines of Nigel Kneale: Prophet but Science fiction isn’t prophecy and shouldn’t be judged as such – though there’s an almost irresistible temptation to discuss the play with reference to the ways in which it accurately anticipates some developments in television – in particular Reality TV shows like Survivor (1992 – Present) and Big Brother (1999- Present). Reality TV actually dates back as far as Candid Camera in 1948, and the Up Series had begun broadcasting with Seven Up! in 1964, so Kneale is deconstructing contemporary ’60s television here rather than predicting future developments. Correspondences between the play and contemporary reality are largely due to our ability to create signal from noise, and are a fine example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.
The play is as interesting for what it ‘got wrong’ as what it ‘got right’. Science fiction isn’t about prophesy, and Kneale wasn’t ‘predicting’ the future, so when I use the phrase ‘got things wrong’ I’m not really suggesting Kneale was actually trying to predict the future – still less that his play should be judged accordingly; I would argue that science fiction attempts to do something different, and should be judged as an expression of the present rather than an experiment in futurology. One subtle and interesting way that The Year of the Sex Olympics is ‘correct’ is the way it shows that ‘Reality’ TV is actually constructed, not simply broadcast: Opie manipulates the events on the island, and is selective in what he broadcasts – denying the audience information about what caused Ketten’s fall, for instance, in order to increase suspense.
There’s a lot of sex and violence on television these days – but it’s largely restricted to imports from subscription channels like HBO and Showtime. There’s an awful lot less sex on mainstream TV than the 70s, and very little nudity: compare Russell T Davies‘ almost chaste Casanova (2005) with Dennis Potter‘s raunchier 1971 version, or the feeble Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake (2010) with the 1976 original; compare the casual nudity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974), Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982), Whoops Apocalypse (1982) or Hot Metal (1986-1989) with their ‘daring’ equivalents today. No ’70s cop show was complete without a shot of this week’s celebrity guest-shag getting out of the hero’s bed and buttoning up her blouse, or a raid on a strip joint. For a short while in the US it was even possible to discuss watching hardcore movies like Deep Throat (1972) or The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) in polite company: celebrities including Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson and Johnny Carson have admitted having seen the former. The New York Times Magazine even coined the term ”porno chic” – but the mainstreaming of pornography did not long outlast the decade.
What Kneale didn’t foresee was the combination of feminism and a conservative backlash which made nudity – largely synonymous with female nudity – less acceptable on UK TV. People talk about sex more on TV, there’s much more strong language, and homosexual themes are more openly represented, but this has largely been a pragmatic consequence of the campaign against AIDS that began in the Eighties rather than an a result of the ‘permissive society’ or a ‘loosening’ of morals. There’s some hardcore content in movies these days, of course, even in the UK, beginning with Lars von Trier‘s The Idiots (1998), and continuing with Catherine Breillat‘s Romance (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), Vincent Gallo‘s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Michael Winterbottom‘s 9 Songs (2004), Shortbus (2006), Destricted (2006) and Trier’s Antichrist (2009) – but those are independent art house movies, often subtitled, consumed by a more middle-classes audience – the High-Drives of Kneale’s play – rather than the working-class Low-Drives. There’s also a quite a bit of simulated sex on subscription channels (Hung, 2009- Present, Game of Thrones, 2011- Present) but the audience figures for those are small compared with mainstream terrestrial television or subscription sports channels.
The consumption of pornography on the internet is still something looked upon as a dubious activity no matter how many people do it, and it is not regarded as socially acceptable as watching the latest Lars Von Trier movie. The so-called ‘adult channels‘ available in the UK are also heavily censored. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to produce and distribute pornography in the USA but it remains a religious and conservative country; Janet Jackson‘s accidental ‘wardrobe malfunction‘ during Super Bowl XXXVIII provoked a level of public outrage not seen since 9/11 and led to an immediate crackdown on perceived ‘indecency’ in broadcasting. Explicit pornography has not become mainstream.
Nigel Kneale… Artist?
Kneale’s view of the audience as passive and sadistic is also too pessimistic. If anything, Kneale fails to appreciate how overly moralistic the public are. When audiences heard that Celebrity Big Brother 2007 contestant – and ultimately winner – Shilpa Shetty was the subject to racist comments by the other contestants, Jade Goody became the most hated woman in Great Britain since Myra Hindley: the controversy generated over 300 newspaper articles in Britain, 1,200 in English language newspapers around the globe, 3,900 foreign language news articles, and 22,000 blog postings on the internet. Jan Moir‘s comments following the the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately in 2009 earned her widespread vilification and the Stonewall Bigot of the Year Award (jointly with Father John Owen), and Jeremy Clarkeson‘s joke at the expense of BBC ‘impartiality’ lead to an equally strong reaction from the PCS. People don’t enjoy watching other people suffer unless they believe they have done something to deserve it – and the play gives the diegetic audience no reason to hate the protagonists. Suffering produces sympathy, not shadenfreude; the Ethiopian famine provoked Live Aid, not laughter.
Kneale was a perceptive critic of television as well as a great writer – but he was as vulnerable to moral panics as anyone else, and like many great writers TV writers (Paddy Cheyefsky, Dennis Potter, Aaron Sorkin) takes television at it’s self-flagellatingly low estimation of its own worth. Too much emphasis on ”Nigel Kneale: Prophet” has undervalued his true worth as ”Nigel Kneale: Artist”.
Kneale had an extraordinary imagination and a flair for conveying a fictional world through language alone that transcended his chosen medium. Until recently TV has been regarded as a disposable medium compared with literature or film; the BFI DVD release is out of print and expensive. Don’t miss this rare chance to see an excellent production one of Kneale’s finest works.
Also check out:
- Blumenthal, Ralph (1973) ”Porno chic; “Hard-core” grows fashionable-and very profitable”, The New York Times Magazine, 21 January 1973
- Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
- Danthackeray (Dan’s blog)
- Evans, Robert O. (1971) ”Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’A Clockwork Orange“ (pdf) in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 406-410
- The Fiction Stroker (2012) ”The Year of the Sex Olympics – LIVE!” (Review)
- Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
- Jameson, Fredric (1972) The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism
- Kneale, Nigel (1968) The Year of the Sex Olympics – The Screenplay (pdf extra on the BFI DVD release)
- Lowe, Tracey (2012) ”Greater Manchester Fringe: The Year of the Sex Olympics – Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester” at The Public Reviews (Review)
- McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media
- — (1967) The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects
- Murray, Andy (2006) Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale
- Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four
- Petley, Julian & Kim Newman (undated) ”Interview with Nigel Kneale”, Video Watchdog No. 47
- Newman, Kim (2003) Sleeve notes to the BFI DVD release.
- Scytheplays (Homepage)
- Thoreau, Henry David (1854) Walden; or, a Life in the Woods